Christmas Really is All About Love [OR Malevolent Morality Isn’t Merry] Luke 2:1-20 and Isaiah 9:2-9

sermon art: Guatemalan Nativity by John Giuliani, 1990s. See more at jbgicon.com

Caitlin Trussell at Augustana Lutheran Church, December 24, 2023

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 2:1-20  In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

 

Isaiah 9:2-9

2The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
3You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
4For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

 

[sermon begins]

Last week’s Christmas pageant during our Sunday worship service included 30 children, with practiced with comedic timing, playing the parts of angels, soldiers, shepherds, wise magi, King Herod, Mary, Joseph, and animals – including a horse who said “kneeee” (neighed), a tiger who said, “whoooohw,” (roared), and a rabbit who said, “hop-hop.”[1] The angel Gabriel moved their chair, stood on it, smiled a ginormous smile and told Mary about a having a baby who will be the son of God, and Mary said, “Oh, okay!”[2] Then the same angel moved their chair across the stage, stood on it, and told Joseph in a dream that Mary is going to have a baby from God, that it’s okay to marry her and take care of the baby, and Joseph said, “Oh, okay!”[3]

Those kids in the pageant performed their ever-loving hearts out as they were our preachers last Sunday – telling us during the sermon time about a love story so powerful in the way that only children can. The back and forth between those of us in the congregation listening and laughing at their intentionally funny lines, and those kids up here in costumes telling us all about it, really came down to it all being about love. Because it is, you know. Christmas really is all about love.

Love includes the sentimental kind that beelines to our emotions. Many of us don’t tap easily or often into those feelings, so sentimentality has its place, reminding us of our humanity and that we may not be as tough as we think we are. Sometimes we don’t trust the sentimental for that reason. It can feel like an intrusion through our thick skin. While sentimental love has its place in warming hearts, greeting cards and sappy movies, it doesn’t tend to change the world. Although the birth of the baby we celebrate today is really quite an odd plan for saving the world.

Newly birthed and lying in a manger, wrapped in bands of cloth, his parents at the ready, although exhausted by their travel to Bethlehem and overwhelmed by the birth that changed not only their world but the whole world. Even if people don’t believe in Jesus as the son of God, there is general agreement that Jesus arriving on the scene impacted life on this planet as Jesus followers alternately do dunderheaded, painful things to the world and its people; and also do unbelievably good, powerful things with and for our fellow humans.

How we get from a baby in a manger, who is supposed to save the world through love, to malevolent morality that isn’t at all merry. And by that, I mean the judgy things we do to ourselves and each other that dehumanize each other, that wage wars personal and political, and rob each other of worth and love. We limit God’s love by drawing lines between who’s lovable and unlovable, lines that have nothing to do with God and everything to do with who we don’t like. After all, this little baby Jesus, a.k.a. the Savior, a.k.a. the Prince of Peace, grows up to teach us to love our enemies because it’s the only way from war to peace. Jesus lived his life constantly expanding the circle that people use to limit who’s in and who’s out. He ate meals with unlovable people, he had public conversations with women no one spoke to, and he had secret conversations with religious leaders who opposed him by day. The list is endless of his ever-expanding circle of saving love.

It turns out that the Prince of Peace Savior that the angels sang about was born utterly dependent and vulnerable. That God meets our vulnerability, our fragile bodies, and our fickle natures by first arriving in a baby’s body – just about as fragile and vulnerable of a body as can be had. And from this baby’s body grew the Jesus who showed us how much we are loved by God and the lengths to which God goes to help us love ourselves and to help us love our neighbors. I’m not sure why it’s so difficult to live in love. Perhaps because it’s easier to be afraid of each other or angry with each other or morally superior to each other, than it is to actually love each other. It’s easier to put ourselves and others down, than it is to see what God sees when God looks at us through Jesus’ eyes. We are broken and beloved humans with a God who loves us first. A God who loves us for the ways we are created good and a God who loves us despite the ways we make a mess of things. This is the Christmas story we get to tell each other like our children did in their pageant last week.

We’re not going to say the right things and get this message perfectly communicated. But we can try to talk about the love that God has for us and what’s it means to us. At the end of the day and at the end of our lives, that’s what we get. The good news of the Christmas baby is that we are loved beyond measure by a God who keeps trying to get our attention. What better way to get our attention than to show up in a baby. Babies are hard to ignore and remind us of the care we all need at various times in our lives. Our pain, our suffering, and our need for love are part of what we wrap our thick skin around, thick skin that keeps out the love we may need most. It really is all about love. About God loving us first and freeing us to love each other. So simple and yet we make it so complicated when it really is all about love.

Last Sunday, as I was presiding over Holy Communion, the manger from the Christmas pageant was in my line of sight below the altar as I chanted the prayer. It was visual poetry, a reminder that in fragile, unexpected places like the manger of communion bread and wine, Jesus’ presence is promised to you as a gift of love this Christmas. We cradle his presence with our fragile hands as we receive communion. You are here and you are welcome. It really is all about love.

That first Christmas Day, we received a great gift in the tiny child, Jesus. A baby in a manger wrapped in bands of cloth, a love letter enveloped in skin and solidarity, reminding us that God’s love is good news of great joy for all the people – loving us for ourselves, just as we are. There is nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less because God is love.[4] It really is all about love. Amen. And Merry Christmas!

 

_________________________________

[1] Watch our pageant here [minute 27:20]: www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqAEsYXvFR4

[2] Luke 1:26-38

[3] Matthew 1:18-22

[4] 1 John 4:8

Cosmic Surrender (For “A Quieter Christmas Service”) John 1:1-5, 14 and Luke 2:1-20

Sermon Art: Creator of the Cosmos in a Manger by Hyatt Moore, oil on canvas, 2015. This is a cropped photo. See full painting here:   Christ of the Cosmos – The Blank Canvas blog by Hyatt Moore — Oil painter

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 20, 2023, 6:15-7 p.m.

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

John 1:1-5, 14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Luke 2:1-20 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

 

[sermon begins]

At the manger-side, we’re drawn in a quieter way into the company of other people and the promises of God. Whether by temperament or circumstance we find ourselves in a reflective moment at a worship service. Christmas is a funny thing. It’s religious. It’s cultural. It’s festive. And it comes at just about the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. There’s some history in those developments. The church long ago tried to figure out how to exist alongside earth-based, indigenous celebrations that were rowdy and a lot of fun. Time of year and some of the trimmings were combined from those celebrations and remain today. I’m cool with that. Christian faith has always lived in people’s lives while being translated by people’s lives.[1] This means that all kinds of things make their way into the mix.

There is also the story told in scripture. At Christmas, we celebrate a birth.  Not just any birth…but a birth that shines light in the darkness, a birth that changes the world by way of love. God was active in history long before the birth of Jesus. Connecting the moment of his birth to God’s entire history, the gospel writer of John uses those powerful words, “In the beginning…”[2] These words that John uses to introduce the Word can also be heard in the very first verse of Genesis at the very beginning of the Bible.[3] This connection draws a huge arc through time, space, and place, between the birth of creation to the birth of Jesus – a spiritual genealogy of sorts.

While Luke spends time on the human story of shepherds and a manger, John spends time in the cosmos. Where Luke’s words are a quiet love story of a holy family, John’s words elevate us into poetic mystery. We could leave it there, in those mysterious heights. We could keep at a distance this mysterious poetry that many discard as heady and inaccessible. Except…except…John doesn’t leave it dangling out in the mystery of the cosmos, untouchable or inaccessible.

John brings the Word straight to the ground when he writes, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” This God who created…who made promises through Abraham, who brought freedom through Moses, who instigated challenge through the prophets, who gave guidance through kings…this God became flesh – vulnerable, beloved, tiny newborn flesh. A mysterious, inaccessible, cosmic God becomes a God that is part of our common humanity, through common flesh that pours out love to the whole world. God taking on flesh to join us in our humanity is the birth.  Or, as John likes to put it, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”[4]

God living among us through the love of Jesus is cause for reflection. Not simply because God showed up but because God entered human fragility, surrendering cosmic power to reveal the depth of divine love. As John writes, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” Light moving in the dark; day against night. This language may be poetic but we understand it by way of our experience.

The darkness of living with a mental illness that defies cure.

The darkness of grieving someone we love and the confusion it brings to daily life.

The darkness of disease, whether our own or someone we love, seems to take up more space than anything else.

The darkness of war in the world, killing fragile people to gain political power.

If we could sit and talk about the darkness, each one of us could name a way that it affects our lives or the life of someone we love. Into these real struggles, this darkness, Jesus is born. Jesus who continues to bring light that reveals God’s love in the midst of the worst that life brings – a light that shines a defiant hope.

We don’t have to go very far to find what’s broken. But think about how fast the speed of light travels to us, whether from the next room or from a star a million miles away. We don’t move a muscle and light comes. Just so, God comes down to us in a flash of light, fleshy and fragile, right to the heart of things. We don’t move a muscle and God shows up. In the company of other people this evening, we remind each other that this is God’s promise to us and to world.  Some days that promise feels as fragile as candle flame. Tonight, the glimmer of light from the manger also feels like a defiant hope, a cosmic surrender revealing God’s love for broken world. No matter our feelings on any given day, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not, [cannot, never will] overcome it.”

Amen and Merry Christmas!

__________________________________________

[1] “Syncretism” is the fancy word for weaving together traditions, including Christianity.

[2] John 1:1

[3] Genesis is the first book of the Bible’s 66 books. Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…”

[4] John 1:14

A sermon for Bless the Years, A Christmas Service – Luke 2:1-20

Sermon Art: John Giuliani, Guatemalan Nativity, 1990s.

Bless the Years is a worship service that we hold for our eldest elders and their friends and families. It’s shorter than a typical worship service and followed by lunch, giving folks a chance to connect with longtime friends that they no longer see weekly.

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 14, 2023

[sermon begins after the Bible reading that’s a little long but stick with it, it’s one of the best ones]

Luke 2:1-20 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

[sermon begins]

Babies have a way of being themselves from the get-go. They sleep when they should be awake and they’re awake when they should be sleeping. They eat on their own schedule. They look like themselves even though we try to connect them with who they might favor – parent, grandparent, sibling, or cousin. The Christmas baby is no different although possibly more himself from the get-go, if there’s even such a thing as being more himself. My friends who are older than me have taught me a lot about being yourself because it’s really all that you have anyway. I’ve had more than one conversation that includes an older friend telling me that they feel the same on the inside as they did when they were younger. Their bodies changing, skin softening, hair lightening, while they continue to feel like themselves as they’ve been all along life’s way.

The baby in the manger, wrapped in bands of cloth, is no different from us in many ways. Born from a mother’s body, whatever dramatic labor story takes place, is how we all begin even if we’re raised in an adoptive family. Babies demand attention because their very lives are at stake, dependent on their parents for food and protection. It turns out that our Savior is no different, utterly dependent and vulnerable. It’s really quite an odd plan for saving the world. Newly birthed and lying in a manger, wrapped in bands of cloth, his parents at the ready although exhausted by their travel to Bethlehem and the birth that changed not only their world but the whole world. Even if people don’t believe in Jesus as the son of God, there is general agreement that Jesus arriving on the scene impacted life on this planet as Jesus followers alternately do dunderheaded, painful things to the world and its people; and also do unbelievably good, powerful things with and for our fellow human travelers.

While we may feel the same inside as we always have, this baby means that we are not. When God slipped on skin in solidarity with us, dropping into time and sharing human experiences with us, this baby showed us a different way to be human together. And the shepherds were not only the first ones outside of his family to see him, they were also the first people to preach about him. That took some guts and a hefty dose of angel inspiration for them to turn up in Bethlehem at the baby’s manger-side and tell HIS PARENTS a thing or two about THEIR newborn – as if Jesus’ parents weren’t already a bit awestruck by the appearance of an angel to Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy, and the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary before she even became pregnant.

When I was diagnosed with lymphoma this past March, I made the decision to hear people’s comments as messages of love from them. We don’t always know what to say when people are sick or struggling so we often say the first thing that comes to mind. In any given moment, our comments can be helpful or not at all helpful. But my experience of people’s comments felt like a love language unto itself, no matter what people actually said.

The only time I responded with an alternative view was when people would say, “God has a plan,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” I would reply to those two comments with something like this, “I know that some people find that comforting, but for me, it’s more helpful to think about how God’s love is revealed in my very human struggle right now…I don’t think that God has given me cancer but God’s love can be revealed in my story.” Now that I’ve been in remission for four months, I’m even more convinced that people’s comments received as a love language was even more important than I knew at the time. More important partly because thinking about folks as messengers of God’s love no matter their faith tradition or no tradition, is how God’s love shows up in the world.

Along that line, when it comes to the Christmas story, I’ve wondered what it might be like to have an angel visitation. Angel means messenger. Since their first words are often, “Do not be afraid,” I assume that being visited by an angel must be terrifying. I’ve probably seen one too many paintings of shepherds and angels floating in the air over them because I feel like it’s the first time that I noticed that the angel stood in front of the shepherds. The angel stood on their level to tell them the good news of great joy, shining the glory of the Lord around them in that dark field, fully embraced by light that shines in the darkness.

The good news that the shepherds heard and preached is the same good news that we hear preached. That God meets our vulnerability, our fragile bodies, and our fickle natures by first arriving in a baby’s body – just about as fragile and vulnerable of a body as can be had. And from this baby’s body grew the Jesus who showed us how much we are loved by God and the lengths to which God goes to help us love ourselves and to help us love our neighbors. I’m not sure why it’s so difficult to live in love. Perhaps it’s because it’s easier to be afraid of each other or angry with each other than it is to love each other. It’s easier to put ourselves and others down, than it is to see what God sees when God looks at us through Jesus’ eyes. We are broken and beloved humans. We get to take this Christmas message to other people just like the shepherds did.

We’re not going to say the right things and get this message perfectly communicated. But we can try to talk about the love that God has for us and what’s it means to us. At the end of the day and at the end of our lives, that’s what we get. The good news of the Christmas baby is that we are loved beyond measure by a God who keeps trying to get our attention. What better way to get our attention than to show up in a baby. Babies are hard to ignore and remind of us of the care we all need at various times in our lives. We’ve received the greatest gift of all in the tiny child, Jesus. A baby in a manger wrapped in bands of cloth, a message of love wrapped in skin and solidarity, reminding us that God’s love is good news of great joy for all the people – loving us for ourselves, just as we are. There is nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less. Merry Christmas everyone.

Advent’s Sweet and Fragile Flame [OR “Come, Emmanuel” May Not Mean What You Think It Means]

*Advent includes the four Sundays before Christmas and is celebrated as the start of the church’s new year by many Christians around the world. Advent wreathes traditionally have four candles. One is lit on the first Sunday. Two are lit on the second…and so on

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 3, 2023

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; two more readings are at the end of the sermon]

Isaiah 64:1-9

1O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
2as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
3When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
4From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
5You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
6We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
7There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

Mark 13:24-37

[Jesus said:] 24“In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
28“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
 [sermon begins]

Advent begins with lighting a single candle. Sweet and fragile is its flame. A ritual signifying a beginning, its soft light ironic given Jesus’ intensity with his disciples. And so begins our church year, plunked into the beginning of the end of Mark’s gospel, just before Jesus’ anointing by an unknown woman and his last Passover meal with his friends before the crucifixion – the beginning of Jesus’ end.

Jesus had been teaching at the temple. As he was leaving, one of his followers struck up a conversation with him. They walked to the Mount of Olives, across from the temple, and took a seat. A few more people from Jesus’ inner circle joined them – Peter, James, John, and Andrew.[1] He talked with them about dark and chaotic times just before the events of the cross began.[2] Jesus’ taught them about the upcoming chaos for which the disciples were to keep awake. Much of what Jesus is alluding to seems to be about the cross as the apocalyptic revelation.[3] As one example, he tells time the same way that the crucifixion story does – evening, midnight, cockcrow, or dawn.[4]  And, in the very next chapter of Mark, after telling them to stay awake as he prayed in a garden, Jesus caught these very same disciples asleep.[5]

What is a well-intended Jesus follower to make of his teaching? Stay awake even though you won’t be able to? That can’t be right. Or, if it is right, it’s only partly right. It is true that staying awake and being vigilant all the time isn’t humanly possible, so we’ve got that going for us. The events of the cross likely seemed like the end times to the disciples. But, more importantly, the cross promises that the end of all things is also a beginning that we cannot imagine.

God’s imagination, now that’s something worth anticipating and worth waiting for. In Advent, we sing Come Emmanuel. Emmanuel means God with Us. We call on God to come now. Our call is laced with dissatisfaction, disillusionment, and disgust over our current predicament. Yet again, we are caught in sin and systems that seem beyond anyone’s capacity to reimagine. But there are moments, glimmers of possibility, sweet and fragile as an Advent flame.

Last Wednesday, a multifaith service of quiet, music, and candle lighting was held in our Sanctuary. All of us there numbered 113. Included in that attendance were Sunni, Shia, and Ismaili Muslims, a variety of Christians, Palestinians, and several rabbis and a few of their congregants. We were quite a mix of humanity. Few words were spoken. There are things to learn and do differently if there is a next time. But it was really something to watch people of that many different backgrounds light candles and stabilize them in the sand next to each other. Those moments together were a paradox of being at the heart of the struggle and buffered from it. A risk as sweet and fragile as an Advent flame.

Risking an unknown future is part of what it means to call on God’s imagination while singing Come Emmanuel. As the prophet Isaiah calls on God to tear open the heavens and come down, there’s a risk taken alongside the confession of the people’s sin. Inviting God to call us to account is no small thing. We are not left unchanged when God shows up. Protected parts of ourselves that we cradle in mangers of our own making are laid bare in front of a God who knows what we keep tucked away from public view. Layers of self-protection are as dried hay through Advent’s sweet and fragile flame.

Our strains of Come Emmanuel harmonize with the psalmist’s song, “Restore us, O God, let your face shine on us, and we shall be saved.” We could use more than a little saving from ourselves right about now. Collectively we keep missing the mark on the basics of humanity. There are around 2,500 billionaires in the world while somewhere between 1 – 2 billion people live in poverty.[6] We’re all a part of this world. To sing Come Emmanuel, to ask God’s face shine on us, is to illuminate powers and principalities in which we’re accidental or actual participants as the high-tech fibers in paper money shimmer in Advent’s sweet and fragile flame.

Advent is strangely short on time this year. We typically light four Advent candles for the four Sundays before Christmas Eve. This year Christmas Eve is on a Sunday, three weeks from now. The churchy, liturgical way to say this is that Advent 4 is in the morning and Christmas Eve is, well, in the evening. This year, we’ve chosen to have only Christmas Eve services on Sunday the 24th starting at 11 a.m. Here’s your invitation to light that fourth Advent candle at home on Christmas Eve morning. Even if you don’t have anything that resembles an Advent wreath, just light one candle, any color. Before the fullness of the day, before the tracking of Santa’s sleigh, there is a larger more subversive claim in Advent’s sweet and fragile flame.

Those sweet and fragile flames are deeply subversive. Lighting Advent candles is also a ritual of comfort. Advent is a paradox. We sing with longing, Come Emmanuel, while we’re assured of Christ’s presence with us in bread, wine, and baptismal waters, and while we’re assured of Christ’s presence with us in God’s call “into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,” as 1 Corinthians describes it. We are not alone. God IS with us. It may just be less like chestnuts roasting on an open fire and more like the light of Advent’s sweet and fragile flame. Come, Emmanuel.

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[1] Mark 13:1-3

[2] Mark chapters 14 and 15.

[3] See my full sermon on the cross as apocalypse here: November | 2014 | Caitlin Trussell

[4] Mark 14:32-52 (evening in the garden); Mark 14:53-65 (midnight, examined by the high priest); Mark 14:66-72 (cockcrow, denied three times by a friend); Mark 15:1-20 (dawn, condemned to die); Mark 15:33 (Jesus’ crucifixion, death on the cross, and burial: Mark 15:21-47).

[5] Mark 14:32-42 The disciples fall asleep three times in the garden as Jesus is praying.

[6] www.forbes.com/billionaires/ and www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/01/societal-poverty-economics-development-finance-sdgs/

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Psalm 80:1–4, 7, 17–19

Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock;
shine forth, you that are enthroned up on the cherubim.
2In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh,
stir up your strength and come to help us.
3Restore us, O God;
let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved.
4O Lord God of hosts,
how long will your anger fume when your people pray? 
5You have fed them with the bread of tears;
you have given them bowls of tears to drink.
6You have made us the derision of our neighbors,
and our enemies laugh us to scorn.
7Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved.
17Let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
the one you have made so strong for yourself. 
18And so will we never turn away from you;
give us life, that we may call upon your name.
19Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved. 

1 Corinthians 1:3-9 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—6just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thank God (at the very least for tambourines) [Or What Do We Thank God For?] A sermon for Thanksgiving Eve

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 22, 2023

[sermon begins after two Bible readings – Psalm and Colossians readings are at the end of the sermon]

Exodus 15:20-21a Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. 21And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously.”

Matthew 11:25-30 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

[sermon begins]

 

Just when you think the gospel of Matthew cannot be endured for one more minute, when the prophetic words of judgment rail mightily against those who are stumbling blocks to God’s mercy, Jesus says something that melts your heart and unfurrows your brow – “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Whew, thank God. We need this good word from the “gentle and humble of heart” Jesus, the One who draws us to himself. We need this word because the fear of missing out and the fear of messing up can be overwhelming. Matthew’s harsh urgency must also be lined up against these verses where Jesus talks about rest, humility, and gentleness.[1] To 1st century ears, Jesus’ encouragement to rest would have sounded odd. Daily work and wages were not a given. Food was as unpredictable as the weather. (And we know a thing or two about unpredictable weather in Colorado.) At least in this country, many of us lay around a lot more than our 1st century friends but I’m not sure we can call it rest. And when do we find rest for our souls? Probably even less often.

When people ask me how I’m doing, I have said in the past that, “Existentially, I’m good, but life is pretty full.” Meaning that when it comes to the meaning of life, our existence, my existence, on the planet, I am actually pretty good. I thank God for that gift. Sometimes the day-to-day can still get wild. Emotions can still spring out of nowhere, egged on by our survival-oriented brainstems, but there’s a soul place that’s sustained by the Holy Spirit. I cannot explain it but I do trust it. Thank God.

“Thank God.” That’s a common phrase. It bubbles up from me in a flash. “Thank God.” Sometimes we ARE thanking God. Sometimes it’s a profound sense of relief that may or may not have anything to do with anything God has done or is doing. A green light when you’re in a hurry, or the last spoonful of mayonnaise in the jar for your egg salad sandwich, may not be in the realm of divine activity even if we thank God for the moment. Shocking, I know. Thanksgiving Eve is a good time to pause and wonder about what we thank God for.

In our Bible readings, Miriam – a prophet and Moses and Aaron’s sister – thanks God for deliverance from slavery into freedom. Moses had just led the Hebrews from enslavement in Egypt, on dry ground in the parting of the Red Sea, safely to the other side. Miriam and all the other women danced, sang, and played tambourines to give glory to God for delivering them into freedom – a boisterous, celebratory, “Thank God!” Time and again in scripture, there is a resounding theme of freedom from oppression and from the opportunistic tyrant of sin.[2] There’s an underdog quality to the celebration of freedom either way. Although the freedom of forgiveness and redemption are less exciting on paper, the liberation from being locked into death-dealing patterns is a time to say, “Thank God!” Just ask any of our friends who have survived addictions through the rooms of recovery. Their surrender to a power beyond themselves and their profound gratitude for their recovery knows no bounds.

So, we thank God for rest. We thank God for freedom and forgiveness. Which is fun to celebrate with tambourines like Miriam but we do it more often here with organ music, piano, bells, trumpets, and flutes. All good things that amplify to our gratitude. Here’s a funny. After I’d drafted this sermon, Andy, our Director of Music was walking through the halls with tambourine, and I asked him if it was for tonight. It wasn’t. But it IS for this Sunday! Thank God? Maybe not, but it was cool timing.

We sang Psalm 65 tonight and joined with nature in praising God for life, food, earth, and animals – remembering that our existence on this unique blue planet is an amazing, interconnected gift. Astounding, really. Sustained by our human cooperation – from seed in dirt, to harvest, to stores, to kitchens, to table. Many hands make food possible. Thank God!

Praise and thanks to God for being human. Our Colossians reading reminds us of how love moves from God through Jesus to us and back to God. I often pray with people and thank God for the love that we know through each other because the love we share gives us the smallest taste of how much God must love us. At our best, it’s what being church together means as we remind each other just how important each of us are in the kingdom of God. And not just us, our neighbors too. Thanks God!

The magnitude of the love of God is beyond words. We glimpse parts of God’s love in Jesus’ ministry and in his death as he refused to raise a hand in violence, continuing to connect the people he loved even as he hung from a cross.[3] (Although you have to turn to the gospel of John for that story.) In a time when division clamors for our attention, Jesus’ love sustains us across suffering and boundaries of our own making, liberating us towards each other, and saving us from ourselves and each other. Thank God!

And when our pilgrimage on earth is done, from our birth to the setting sun, we close our eyes as if it’s night, to join the glorious company of the saints in light.

Tonight, on Thanksgiving Eve, we sing and pray and remember in gratitude all that God continues to do for us, tambourines notwithstanding. Thank God. And amen.

__________________________________

[1] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave for Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. July 2023. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/910-fifth-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-13a-july-2-2023-2

[2] Ibid.

[3] John 19:25b-27

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Colossians 3:14-17 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Psalm 65 Praise is due to you,
 O God, in Zion;
 and to you shall vows be performed,
 2O you who answer prayer!
 To you all flesh shall come.
 3When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
 you forgive our transgressions.
 4Happy are those whom you choose and bring near
 to live in your courts.
 We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
 your holy temple.
 5By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
 O God of our salvation;
 you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
 and of the farthest seas.
 6By your strength you established the mountains;
 you are girded with might.
 7You silence the roaring of the seas,
 the roaring of their waves,
 the tumult of the peoples.
 8Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
 you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
 9You visit the earth and water it,
 you greatly enrich it;
 the river of God is full of water;
 you provide the people with grain,
 for so you have prepared it.
 10You water its furrows abundantly,
 settling its ridges,
 softening it with showers,
 and blessing its growth.
 11You crown the year with your bounty;
 your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
 12The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
 the hills gird themselves with joy,
 13the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
 the valleys deck themselves with grain,
 they shout and sing together for joy.

Courage, Good People – Fear Gets Us Nowhere [Matthew 25:14-30 and Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

 

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 19, 2023

[sermon begins after one Bible reading – see end of sermon for the Zephaniah reading]

Matthew 25:15-30 [Jesus said to the disciples:] 14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ”

[sermon begins]

As gospel writers go, Matthew weaves subtlety with shock value which can make it hard to see his point. Matthew begins his gospel with a mind-numbing list of names that add up to fourteen generations of Jesus’ ancestors.[1] No angels, shepherds, or manger in his story, that’s for sure. Yet, if your attention drifts away from the names even for a moment, you’d miss major plot twists, including a woman who wasn’t born Jewish and a woman who was a prostitute. Our 21st century minds aren’t shocked but our 1st century friends may have been. In our Matthew reading today, the opposite happened. Our ancient friends may have been lulled into complacency by the trope of a powerful person trusting their underlings as a test of character.[2] These stories were common in the first century as regular people had a chance to shine. Jesus subtly wove this well-known trope with the shock value of an enormous amount of money, a talent was 15 years of wages, and the fearful slave who buried his talent, having nothing to show the master when he came back from his journey, and was thrown into the outer darkness. The man who went on a journey was excessive in money and trust.

What is a Jesus follower to make of his last few teachings in Matthew’s gospel? Each parable tops the last. Next Sunday, they’ll crescendo in intensity. Jesus was wound up tighter than a ranting Bronco fan. Although let’s give Jesus the benefit of the doubt, shall we? These intense parables continue to escalate because time was running out. He was about to be arrested. I wonder how desperate Jesus was for his disciples to understand his urgency. Things were about to get as real as they were horrific. Still, Jesus’ teaching was first about how generous the man was, how much he wanted to share with his slaves, and how much he trusted them to carry on his work in his absence. The man’s excessive expectation inspired the first two slaves into action and froze the last one in fear. Remember the limits of parable. These parabolic stories only take us so far in teasing apart God’s action in Jesus and in the world. It’s highly likely that Jesus’ parable of the talents is meant more to inspire us than to make us afraid. Fear is not freedom and is not consistent with Jesus’ message in Matthew in which he says many times, “Do not be afraid.” Fear doesn’t get anyone anywhere especially in the kingdom of God that Jesus said is about mercy.

Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus’ teaching on the nine Beatitudes.[3] He began each Beatitude with “Blessed are…” and he shocked his listeners by listing experiences that don’t seem at all blessed and connecting them with mercy, comfort, and the kingdom of heaven. (This is another example of the subtlety and shock value of Matthew’s gospel.) Today’s parable invites action by the journeying man’s abundance not anger. In the verses after our parable today, the ones for next Sunday, Jesus doubles down on God’s mission of mercy. And God’s mercy doesn’t have time for fear. Fear gets us nowhere.

Last Thursday, I was part of a Multi Faith Leadership Forum conversation with about 20 other faith leaders. Jews, Muslims, Christians, and more, spoke carefully and honestly about our own emotions and thoughts about October 7 and the Hamas attack that victimized innocent Israeli men, women and children – mostly Jews but also people from other places – and about the Israeli military response that victimizes innocent Palestinian men, women, and children. Words are failing them. Our collective words are failing them and have been failing them. So much so that violence is increasing in our own country and in our own city against Jews, Muslims, and Arabs. While many are demonstrating and while many others are protesting, words continue to fail.

I myself love words and I struggle to find the right ones as adults and children and families continue to fall and to be afraid. I have Jewish family and friends. I have Palestinian friends and colleagues. I am no fan of the current Israeli government. I am no fan of Hamas. Sides are being taken and demanded. But still, there are Israeli and Palestinian families of the fallen who are searching for a way beyond sides. There are other Palestinian-Israeli groups looking for a way beyond sides. There are multi faith leaders who are searching for a way beyond sides. And in today’s reading, I hear Jesus tell a story, a parable, about a man whose generosity inspires some and whose trust terrifies others. One interpretation of this parable is that Jesus’ mission of mercy is meant to expand, not to be buried in the ground.

It’s in that spirit that Augustana is hosting a service for the multi faith community. As words fail, we are invited to create a sacred space with our shared humanity across religious and political differences. This service was generated by conversations with faith leaders and lay people – Jews, Muslims, and Christians – who are in pain, grieving, and unable to see a way forward from war to peace, from death to life, from despair to hope. Their feedback supported the attempt of such a service, recognizing that any effort to hold space for everyone’s grief and humanity will be insufficient for some. Invitations to this service are between faith leaders and their communities. No publicity. No livestream. Only people and presence. You’re invited. As words fail us, we’ll gather in the silence of our shared presence and in the presence of God. This building, the quiet, the music, and the candles are merely a container for the heartbroken and for the determined to hold space for our shared humanity made in the image of God.

Last Sunday, Pastor Gail mentioned compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is real. Our fragile bodies aren’t built to feel the feels about everything that’s happening in the world all at the same time. That’s a fast track to despair. Neither are we to be complacent in the suffering, to shrug off another human’s pain, to hide from suffering or to bury our heads in the ground as if it doesn’t exist. The reading from the prophet Zephaniah is the only reading we ever get from this prophet’s small book in the minor prophets of the Old Testament. There’s a great line about God’s frustration with God’s people in which the Prophet Zephaniah accuses the people who “rest complacently on their dregs.” Jesus’ way of mercy resists complacency and self-righteousness.

Jesus asks his followers to risk within and beyond the Christian freedom and abundance we’ve been given as his body in the world for the sake of the world. May God give us light to see the way, courage to take a risk, and trust in the love that transforms death into life. Thanks be to God. And amen.

_________________________________________________

[1] Matthew 1:1-15

[2] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Commentary on the Bible readings for November 19, 2023. Sermon Brainwave Podcast. workingpreacher.org/podcasts/932-25th-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-33a-nov-19-2023

[3] Matthew 5:1-12

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Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

7Be silent before the Lord God!
For the day of the Lord is at hand;
the Lord has prepared a sacrifice,
he has consecrated his guests.

12At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
and I will punish the people
who rest complacently on their dregs,
those who say in their hearts,
“The Lord will not do good,
nor will he do harm.”
13Their wealth shall be plundered,
and their houses laid waste.
Though they build houses,
they shall not inhabit them;
though they plant vineyards,
they shall not drink wine from them.

14The great day of the Lord is near,
near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter,
the warrior cries aloud there.
15That day will be a day of wrath,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
16a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
and against the lofty battlements.

17I will bring such distress upon people
that they shall walk like the blind;
because they have sinned against the Lord,
their blood shall be poured out like dust,
and their flesh like dung.
18Neither their silver nor their gold
will be able to save them
on the day of the Lord’s wrath;
in the fire of his passion
the whole earth shall be consumed;
for a full, a terrible end
he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.

Saints in Light [OR The Mystery of Connection Through Death] Matthew 5:1-12

sermon art: Communion of Saints by Elise Ritter

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran church on November 5, 2023

[sermon begins after the Bible reading – the 1 John reading is at the end of the sermon]

This Bible reading is often called “The Beatitudes” for the “Blessed.” My sermon is written in beatitude form – beginning with the concerns of the world and shifting to words of comfort…

Matthew 5:1-12 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

[sermon begins]

What does the world want? I mean the world that doesn’t include opportunists, oppressors, and oligarchs. I mean us, people – young, old, sick, healthy; all genders, religions, and colors. Regular people all around the world. What does the world want? Well, I haven’t interviewed the world, but I read a lot, listen to people a lot, and wonder about this question A LOT. People seem to want similar things – including enough love, food, shelter, income, community, peace, and health to lead meaningful lives. These near-universal wants hit home at last week’s concert here in our sanctuary. 100 voices combined in song to sing Tuvayun, the nine verses of the Beatitudes that we heard in the Matthew reading today that begin with “Blessed.” [1]  Tuvayun is Aramaic for “blessed,” a language that Jesus spoke.

There was this moment in Tuvayun entitled “I Hope” when each member of our Chancel Choir and the Colorado Chorale spoke their own words of hope, first one at a time and then all at the same time. It was cacophony of words piled on words, hope piled on hope. Hope so full and urgent that it rang through our ears to our hearts until mine broke into sobs. (I think Rob was worried about me for a minute.) Through the tears and heart broken open, I thought that these could be the voices of just about everyone in the world, hoping upon hope that we could get our collective act together so that everyone could simply live.

Jesus sums up reality’s clash with hope in the Beatitudes. Blessed are the depressed, the grieving, the merciful, the pure heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, and the slandered. Folks who bear the burdens of despair, grief, persecution, justice, and pure hearts know the lament that comes with their heavy load. Jesus hears their cries and sees their suffering. His list of nine beatitudes is a precious gift as people’s pain is heard and seen. Jesus doesn’t stop there. He offers a word of hope.

Hope as blessings are revealed. There isn’t a lot of agreement about what “blessed” means in the Matthew reading. Because Jesus was Jewish and likely had some rabbinic training, I hang my hat with the rabbis on this one; that a blessing is something that already exists and occasionally we get a glimpse of the blessing that already exists. The rabbinic view is in opposition to our 21st century view that a blessing is like being tapped by a fairy wand and something good happens because of how deserving we are. The Jewish notion of “blessed” helps us see life in full, revealing not only God’s promises when we suffer but also our call as conduits of blessing when we encounter suffering around us.[2] God’s work. Our hands.

On All Saints Day, it’s important to note that the blessing is not the suffering itself. The church has done some damage over the years with this kind of thinking. Opportunists, oppressors, and oligarchs are the ones who don’t want what most of the world wants. They perpetuate injustice, suffering, and violence to disrupt and take advantage of the disruption to gain power and wealth over and against most of the people in the world. Let’s not confuse their corruption as something from God.

Let’s focus on the saints. In Lutheran Christianity, saints are regular people like you and me who are touched by the waters of baptism. We’re sainted by the power of the Holy Spirit and together we add up to the body of Christ. (Another weird bit of Christian math kind of like the Trinity.) Sometimes we do super special things and most of the time we don’t. Martin Luther called this being saint and sinner at the same time – simul iustus et peccator. I sometimes use this language when I welcome people at the beginnings of funerals or other events here. I’ll say something like, “Good morning, I’m Pastor Caitlin, and I welcome you on behalf of the sinner-saints of Augustana.” When I say this, I know that most people probably don’t know what it means but I like it because it’s true. Sinners the lot of us. And I want people to know that we know that, especially since some people have an experience of Christians as enamored with their own importance.

The other thing that’s said at funerals is a prayer of Commendation at the end of the funeral. There are different prayers of Commendation but the one that I say most goes like this…

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, __________. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

We say this prayer as a request, asking God to receive the person who died. But it’s a request to which we’ve been given the answer in baptism. God’s answer to this request is, “Yes.” God enfolds us in the life of God here and now. And God enfolds us in the life of God when we die. We’re enfolded in the life of God and “into the glorious company of the saints in light.” Now I don’t know what that means exactly. None of us does on this side of death. But it’s that glorious company of the saints in light that captures the imagination – seeing again much grieved for loved ones and friends. I’ve said prayers of Commendation many, many times as I touch urns or caskets. It’s the line about joining the saints in light that fills my heart with hope.

Last week, I was able to join by zoom the funeral of a dear colleague and friend, Andrea Doeden. Her congregation is in Trinidad, Colorado. As I watched the communion line that lasted for three full hymns and part of a fourth, I was struck by the mundane act of communion – coming forward, hands outstretched, bread and wine offered and eaten – and the mystical union that we have with Jesus and each other when we commune. We’re connected across time with the many who have come before us who make up the glorious company of the saints in light. We’re connect across time with Jesus and the saints who will come after us. Then I watched Bishop Jim commend Andrea to “the mercy of God, our maker and redeemer.” He put his hand on her urn, her photo next to it surrounded by flowers, and he prayed the prayer. Even in my sadness, I felt it, the mystery of communion with the saints in light.

Death cannot unlove a life that is loved. In fact, nothing can unlove a life that is already loved because love is from God.[3] The full measure of God’s love is that God loves you into life and God’s loves you through your last breath. The people listed in the bulletin today, the people named because they took their last breath in the past year, the people we commune with when we take communion, God loved them into life and God loved them on the way out. As you live and breathe today, God loves you. As you live through your last breath, God loves you. You are enfolded in the life of God, created in God’s image, and beloved through God’s death in Jesus on the cross – a wounded and beautiful Savior. You are sainted by God’s activity, not your own. In the words of the First John reading:

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when [Christ] is revealed, we will be like him.”[4]

Alleluia! And Amen!

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1 John 3:1-3 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

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[1] The form of this sermon is written like a Beatitude, like Jesus’ “Blessed are…” statements in the gospel of Matthew reading. I begin with the cares and sufferings of the world and then proceed to the word of hope.

[2] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Discussion on Sermon Brainwave podcast for November 5, 2023.

[3] 1 John 4:7 “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” NRSV.  A few verses later is 1 John 4:12 which is actually my favorite verse of all time. “No one has ever see God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and [God’s] love is made complete in us.” When I couldn’t pick up a Bible after many years out of the church, this was the verse that drew me back in.

[4] 1 John 3:2

Trick or Treating – Loving the Littles [OR No tricks, no treats, just hope]

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 22, 2023

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.

2We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. 6And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

Matthew 22:15-22 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

[sermon begins]

I’m going to go out on a limb and confess that Halloween is not my favorite holiday. The ghoulish stuff creeps me out. The gory stuff makes me queasy. And the demonic stuff disturbs me. I close my eyes during trailers for horror movies because those images do NOT belong in my head. I’m a Halloween scaredy cat but I love kids. Kids too small to walk house to house are pulled in wagons by their caring adults, still working on their “Rs,” saying, “Twick or Tweet.” Kids still in elementary school whose parents are hollering manner suggestions from the sidewalk while their kid screams “Trick or Trick,” too strung out on sugar to remember to say, “Thank you.” And kids in their teens who may or may not wear costumes and cart around their candy stockpile in a pillowcase with a barely audible, “Trick or Treat.” I’m the goofy adult at the door just happy to see them, telling them they look great or to have fun or to be safe. We may spend the rest of the year telling kids not to take candy from strangers but the weirdness of the trick-or-treat tradition is irrelevant in the face of that cuteness, excitement, and treats. Tricks are another thing altogether. The 1920s were the worst for tricks when pranks set cities on edge.[1] No one likes to be tricked. Tricksters have a grand time but being tricked ones is no fun.

Tricks were on the minds of the Pharisees, their disciples, and the Herodians, as they treated themselves to a fool-proof test that would cut Jesus down to size. But tricksters were no match for the table-turning Jesus. He turned the tables on them as easily as he overturned the tables of the temple’s moneychangers in the last chapter.[2] Ordinarily, the Pharisees would have had nothing to do with the Herodians who seem to be pro-Roman by virtue of their name.[3] But it was time for this troublemaking Jesus to go, so the rivals joined forces against him.[4]

First, they treated him to flattery, praising his sincerity and his impartiality. Then came the trick – “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” If Jesus answered, yes, he would have angered the people; if Jesus said no, he would have angered Rome. Jesus found third answer, give to God what is God’s and give to the emperor what is the emperors. That test seems straightforward even if tricks were involved.

Here’s the more interesting question to me. Why did the Pharisees’ disciples have that coin inside the temple? It had the head of Emperor Tiberius, son of Caesar Augustus. As Caesar, Augustus was considered divine, so Tiberius was at least the son of a God. Tiberius’ head on that on a coin would have been blasphemous in the temple because it was the image of an idol, a false god.[5] In verse 20, “head” is literally translated “icon” in the Greek. As an icon of a god, that coin was an idol forbidden in the temple and should have been exchanged for a shekel outside the temple door to put in the offering. Jesus had a trick up his own sleeve when he asked them to show him “the coin used for the tax.”

Watching Jesus escape a trick is a real treat especially when it leaves us with tricky questions to play with. Jesus asks about Tiberius’ image in a conversation about loyalty. I confess that I’m not immune to my own fangirl moments with certain public figures. I’m self-aware about them but it makes me wonder about how we’re bombarded with people and brands that demand something of us, our time and attention for sure. But they also demand our dollars and our loyalty. Lyn Goodrum, our Publications Administrator, was working on the worship bulletin and she asked if I wanted to use these assigned verses in Matthew on Commitment Sunday today. They’re not your typical inspiring verses about money. I said, yes, I want to use them because they help us think about what Jesus was up against and what we are too. It’s okay to take a hard path through scripture and let it challenge our assumptions and ask us tough questions. We can also bring other scripture into the conversation, too.

Earlier in Matthew, in the sermon on the mount, Jesus preached to his disciples, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[6] In that story and in our story today, Jesus pushes his listeners to deeper connection with God, working out for ourselves how we are to live and follow in the way of Jesus.[7] Isn’t that one of the appealing features of faith? That we get to wonder, decide, fail, and try again in the way of Jesus? We engage our conscience and our hearts without tricks to confuse us or treats to persuade us. While Jesus’ way isn’t always clear, it is the way of God who is good. God who loves us first without demanding a performance of our own goodness or tricking us into loving God back.

I think about this kind of stuff a lot when it comes to stewardship and giving money to the church – well before I became a pastor and now that I am one. Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard from a few Augustana people, including from Nick again today, about our faith and financial gifts working together in ministry. Last week, Jordan made a point to mention that we each give what we’re able to give. Some of us can give a little and some of us can give a lot. If you’ve never given regularly, our Stewardship Committee asks you to consider starting to give $5 a week; and if you’ve been giving regularly to increase your giving by up to 5% of that amount. Rob and I have been giving by automatic withdrawal for years to make it one less thing to remember on the to-do list.

All of us giving something works together to make ministry thrive for our congregation. Thriving includes caring for each other, our ministry partners in the community and our staff. Thriving includes our building and grounds through which we welcome people and offer hospitality. We’re not perfect. Ministry is messy simply because there are people involved and people are messy. But Jesus was always on the side of the people and calls us to the same. Our answer to Jesus’ call is a mixed bag but we keep giving financially and doing ministry together because our hearts follow our treasure. Jesus knows us and the human condition all too well.

I’ll close today with these opening words that we heard today from Paul’s beautiful, pastoral letter to the church at Thessalonica. Scholars think that this was his earliest letter to the churches and may be the oldest writing in the New Testament as few as 10 years after Jesus’ died.[8] Paul remembered the Thessalonians before God and then he celebrated their work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.[9] Our world needs hope right now. Each of us needs hope.

Out of our own need for hope we become messengers of hope for a weary world. Not an illusory hope or perverse optimism in the face of hard things. But a true hope that challenges us to turn away from the sin that hurts ourselves and each other here and around the world. A true hope that deepens our love during suffering. And a true hope that shines light into the darkness of despair. We hold that hope for each other and for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God and amen.

______________________________________

[1] Emily Martin, “The history of trick-or-treating, and how it became a Halloween tradition.” National Geographic, October 23, 2022. The history of trick-or-treating, and how it became a Halloween tradition (nationalgeographic.com)

[2] Matthew 21:12

[3] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcase for Bible readings on October 22, 2023. www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts

[4] Ibid.

[5] Skinner, ibid.

[6] Matthew 6:21

[7] Yung Suk Kim, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, Virginia Union University. Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22 for October 22, 2023. Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22 – Working Preacher from Luther Seminary

[8] Lutheran Study Bible, 1 Thessalonians – Background File, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 1942.

[9] 1 Thessalonians 1:2

Hope Shines in the Darkness [OR Christ’s Compassion Knows No Bounds]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 15, 2023

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Psalm 23 The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.
You restore my soul, O Lord,
and guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 

Matthew 22:1-14 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.”

[sermon begins]

Even in the age of AI, desperate students still have CliffsNotes that boil down long, sometimes tedious, novels into a few main points that can be used to write essays…or, as many a desperate student tells their parents, to better understand the story while reading said tedious novel. I was afraid to use them for fear of getting caught by teachers way smarter than my high school self. But, there is a valid argument for boiling down difficult ideas to make them more accessible. Here’s my attempt at the CliffsNotes version of Jesus’ parable of the Wedding Banquet in today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel:

The kingdom of heaven is like the guy who saw the king’s petty and rageful true self and wouldn’t put on the king’s robe, which led to the king throwing that guy into the outer darkness. [Read that twice for good measure.]

This CliffsNotes version of Jesus’ parable makes perfect sense. Why on earth would you want to party with a king who lacks self-control and rages against his people when his ego is bruised? He invited party guests who didn’t want to come, so much so that they killed the king’s messengers. The king’s rage turned on them and he torched their cities. This is not a king of grace, mercy, or kindness. This king lets you know how much you’ve disappointed him by killing you and burning your house down. I wouldn’t want to wear that king’s robe either. At least, I hope I would have the courage not to put on the robe but I don’t think I’m that brave.

Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian church, I often heard Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet interpreted as if the rageful king was God and the last people invited who wore the king’s robes were the baptized and the poor robe-less guy was thrown into the outer darkness to suffer for all of eternity for not putting on the dang robe. As Pastor Gail has emphasized over the last two weeks, we need to be really careful with Jesus’ parables, especially these last three from the last three Sundays. Jesus’ told these three parables after he entered Jerusalem towards his execution on a cross. Time was of the essence, and he was being challenged by religious leaders who wanted him dead. Parables don’t lend themselves to easy interpretations and, as listeners, we often want to align ourselves with the characters that we think are the winners. Who doesn’t want to win when it comes to God choosing you or not choosing you – especially if eternal outer darkness has anything to do it.

Let’s break down the story unfolding around this parable. Jesus entered Jerusalem where he made angry religious leaders even more angry. The religious leaders arrested Jesus, took him outside the city limits to be crucified, stretched out on a cross until he was dead. It’s more than possible that the guy who gets thrown into the outer darkness was a story that Jesus was telling about himself because his message of absurd hope, extravagant grace, and expansive love was just too much for the powers that be. The wedding banquet echoes the crucifixion, both ending with the outer darkness. The king, the one in power, threw a fit when his party went awry. The king doesn’t align with the God who Jesus reveals. God is revealed at the end of the gospel of Matthew with a crucified king. “Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”[1] There was no Holy War outside the city walls to save Jesus from death. Instead, “darkness came over the whole land.”[2]

As Christians, there are ways we say that God is revealed to us. First and foremost, “through Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”[3] We’ll also argue that God is visible through creation – the world and the wider universe a signature of the creator. But that first one, through Christ crucified, is important because we argue that God absorbs human violence, putting an end to violence as a solution to what ails humanity. Violence is not a solution. The cross is a shining example of the lost cause of violence and the darkness it perpetuates. Violence begets violence.

Violence replicates itself best, especially among humans. We struggle with the lesson of violence over and over again as we say things that hurt people or sometimes we actually hit people. Violence on the world stage is something we’re more than familiar with given Russia’s attack on Ukraine and Ukraine’s military defense against Russia. And again this week watching Hamas’ attack Israeli civilians and Israel’s military strike back. These cycles of violence are not just weeks or decades old. They’re centuries, even millennia old. People much smarter than me have made plenty of public comments regarding these violent conflicts. Those of us on the sidelines of them are often overwhelmed by compassion. Compassion means “to suffer together.”[4] We see people killed, bombs exploding, and buildings falling, and are moved by compassion, wanting to do something to alleviate the suffering and failing not because of lack of desire but because the problems are enormous, and the darkness is deep.

The news of the world is too much for most of us and especially for those of us who struggle with mental illness. News can serve as a tipping point into deep darkness especially when a compassionate urge to help is thwarted by a large-scale event. We’re not wired to manage the sensory overload from next door and around the world constantly pumped through our phones, computers, and TVs. Reminding each other to unplug from time-to-time, to recharge with quieter experiences and messages of hope is critically important. Today is one such message of hope. During the song after the sermon, we’ll light candles as we shine light into the darkness of mental illness. We’ll pray for those of us who struggle with mental illness and those people we love who struggle with mental illness. While faith can be a comfort, faith doesn’t prevent suffering. Our E4 Ministry for mental health is helping us learn to be a church that meets the suffering of mental illness with compassion and hope. When you come up and light a candle, you’re invited to take one of the smooth stones that says hope or compassion. You can hold the stone as a prayer when you’ve run out of words to pray.

Jesus knows the suffering in the outer darkness which means that Jesus has compassion for our own deep darkness and gives us a future with hope. Lutheran Christianity describes this as the Theology of the Cross. The Theology of the Cross means that there is nowhere that God is more available, more present, more loving than in our suffering, in our experience of darkness. Our ancient Jewish cousins in the faith knew this too in Psalm 23. We sang together, “Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me.” The valley of the shadow of death is more directly translated as deep darkness. God has always been in the darkness with God’s people. Jesus Christ expanded God’s promise of presence, of hope and compassion, to include the world that God loves. When we bear persistent pain, Christ’s compassion knows no bounds. Thanks be to God, and amen.

__________________________________________________

[1] Matthew 27:37

[2] Matthew 27:45

[3] 1 Corinthians 2:2

[4] Greater Good Magazine: Science Based Insights for a Meaningful Life. Compassion Definition | What Is Compassion (berkeley.edu)

Giving God the Stink-Eye [OR Taking a Leap of Faith] Matthew 20:1-16, Jonah 3:10-4:11, and Philippians 1:21-30

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 24, 2023 

 [sermon begins after three Bible readings]

Matthew 20:1-16 [Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Jonah 3:10-4:11 When God saw what [the people of Ninevah] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
6The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
9But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

 

Philippians 1:21-30 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
27Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well—30since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

[sermon begins]

Sometimes all we have is a leap of faith. A leap of faith means that we don’t know what’s going to happen. For some people, leaping in faith means getting out of bed in the morning. For others, leaping in faith means changing careers. Heck, life is a leap of faith. Life choices and events beyond our control all take leaps of faith. In Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, a.k.a. the Bible book of Philippians, he took a leap of faith in sending that letter. He encoded it with words that the Roman authorities would see as meaningless – gospel of Christ, faith, salvation, grace, joy and suffering.1 The church folks would know the hidden code, that God turns things upside down. Paul was writing from prison to people who had everything taken away from them by Rome. They knew that suffering didn’t have the last word. Challenging times make it difficult to feel joy much less acknowledge joy. But there’s Paul talking about joy in faith and their faith in the gospel. Trust is essential for experiencing joy in the middle of trauma, political or otherwise. Many people tell me that they don’t know how they would live life without their faith. I know that my faith and the faith of so many others kept me going over the last few months. 

The faith that claims us is of a God who “is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” While the psalmist is praising God for those qualities, Jonah gives God the stink eye, accusing God of grace, mercy, patience, and steadfast love.2 How dare God be God with those horrific enemies?! How dare God extend beauty to people Jonah can’t stand, even if they did repent of their murderous ways? Jonah’s stink-eyed grievance is legit. As non-Jews, the Philippians may not have known the story of Jonah, but Paul as a Jewish Christian did know the story of Jonah. He planted churches with faith in Jesus who revealed God’s grace, mercy, patience, and steadfast love. Paul formed these churches as a leap of faith in circumstances that were less than favorable because he believed in the God of his ancestors from whom Jesus was embodied, took flesh, and launched a ministry of grace and God’s kingdom. Jesus wasn’t a professor in front of a classroom. He taught his followers as life presented itself.  

Parables were part of Jesus’ teachings. Parables are stories that are open to interpretation and slippery when it comes to direct answers. Just before our parable today in the Matthew reading, Peter had asked Jesus what the benefits of following him were. Jesus gave a convoluted answer but then launched into a parable to try to explain his answer. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…” Then Jesus goes on to say that the landowner hires several groups of people in town. The first group he hires early in the morning committing to paying them a daily wage. The next three groups he hired with the promise that he’d “pay what is right.” At the end of the day, he hires the last bunch without one word about payment. We know the drill. The landowner starts with that last bunch who worked an hour by paying them a full daily wage. The story is absurd. No landowner would have stayed in business if word got out that you could make a daily wage working for an hour.  

Let’s go with it for a minute though. Imagine the last hour workers’ joy being able to feed their families for a few days. Imagine their joy. But each group was paid a daily wage, and the early morning group was furious. They were angry. If we read closely, we hear their reason, they said to the landowner, “…you have made them equal to us.” “You have made them equal to us.” A scathing rebuke from the workers to the landowner. It gets better. The landowner questions the workers, “Are you envious because I am generous?” In the Greek, this question more precisely asks, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” In other words, the landowner asks, “Are you giving me the stink eye because I’m good?”  

Does anyone relate to the stink eye wielding workers? Maybe a teacher gave everyone an “A” after you studied, actually got an “A,” and they didn’t. Maybe your gifts and skills aren’t recognized or reimbursed in a way that leaves you feeling overlooked and undervalued. Are we inclined to give the stink eye to people who haven’t worked as hard as we have or, even better, to give the stink eye to God for God’s generosity or to people who keep harping on God’s generosity?  

We could read this parable and argue for workers’ rights, tying the United Auto Workers’ and The Writers Guild’s strikes against corporate greed to the lesson today. We could also argue that this parable isn’t practical guidance but theological argument for God’s grace available in Jesus Christ to all people at all times. I’m more interested in arguing that we are like the workers – skeptical, cynical, and worried about being declared equal to other people who aren’t. This may be part of the reason we get concerned about helping people. We can think that if we help them too much it won’t be good for them. That rabbit hole contains sticking points that make it hard to leap in faith.  

I’ve gone back and forth about talking about Augustana Homes and Bless the Build as a leap of faith, but I think it’s worth the risk. Construction begins in October and this afternoon at 1 p.m. in the Sanctuary we’ll have a brief program that ends in Augustana’s Community Park, right next to the site of future affordable homes built by Habitat for Humanity Metro Denver on land leased to them by you, the Augustana congregation. The land lease keeps the cost of the homes affordable. The project began five years ago. 

In March of 2018, four Augustana folks went to a breakfast hosted by Interfaith Alliance and heard about the Congregation Land Campaign. Interns at Interfaith Alliance had been assigned the task of calculating how many unused acres of land in Metro Denver were available on faith community properties. 5,000. 5,000 acres across Metro Denver that could be used to build affordable housing as one piece of Denver’s housing puzzle. After the breakfast, these four folks met with the pastors to share what they learned. Each tiny, incremental step, the congregation’s team made headway, led by retired Pastor Ann Hultquist. A team was formed in the congregation to imagine the use of this land for housing. In 2019, over a year after the Interfaith Alliance breakfast, the congregation voted for the project. With other options to sell the land, I call that a leap of faith. By December 2019, we selected Habitat for Humanity as our construction partner out of three possibilities. And we all know what happened in March of 2020 when the world shut down.  

While the pandemic slowed the progress, the team persisted, engaging the congregation and neighbors in ongoing discussions for updates and feedback. There were behind-the-scenes tasks that Habitat and the congregation picked away at with the city and the neighborhood association – rezoning, water issues, build size, you know, the fun stuff. Why all these details? Because ultimately families will have affordable homes because of the inspiration to dream and the determination to see the dream through the details. Families will have homes. That’s the dream. Today is as much about celebrating breaking ground on Augustana Homes as it is about inspiring other people to dream about other empty land with potential for homes. If we can make this audacious leap of faith as a large-ish, reserved, and responsible congregation then maybe other faith communities can dream it too. Building affordable homes is one piece of the housing puzzle in Denver. For the eight families who will own Augustana Homes, it’s THE piece that will make their dream a reality. 

It would have been easy, and perhaps even advisable, for the congregation to make a different decision. In light of today’s readings, we could argue that the leap of faith we’re taking is the kind of thing that we’re called to do. We can argue it till kingdom come. In the meantime, we’ll catch glimpses of the kingdom that is like a landowner whose generosity earns the occasional stink eye when generosity is on the line. Thanks be to God. And amen. 

Pastor, Preacher, Speaker